St. Laurent Becomes Canadian Prime Minister

Louis St. Laurent replaced the retiring William Lyon Mackenzie King as the new Liberal prime minister of Canada. During St. Laurent’s tenure, Canada began to find its place in world affairs, increased its domestic wealth and prosperity, and focused on developing its own national and cultural identities.

Summary of Event

The retirement of William Lyon Mackenzie King Prime ministry, Canadian;William Lyon Mackenzie King[King] as leader of the Liberal Party and prime minister of Canada in 1948 was not merely the end of a political career, but the closing of an era. King had been a part of the Canadian government since joining the civil service in 1900, in preference to an academic post at Harvard University. In 1908, he resigned from the civil service to stand for Parliament. King assumed the leadership of the Liberal Party in 1919, following the death of the much-loved Wilfred Laurier, first becoming prime minister in 1929. In all, King had served as prime minister for twenty-two years. Prime ministry, Canadian;Louis St. Laurent[Saint Laurent]
Liberal Party, Canadian;convention of 1948
[kw]St. Laurent Becomes Canadian Prime Minister (Nov. 15, 1948)[Saint Laurent Becomes Canadian Prime Minister]
[kw]Canadian Prime Minister, St. Laurent Becomes (Nov. 15, 1948)[Canadian Prime Minister, Saint Laurent Becomes]
[kw]Prime Minister, St. Laurent Becomes Canadian (Nov. 15, 1948)[Prime Minister, Saint Laurent Becomes Canadian]
Prime ministry, Canadian;Louis St. Laurent[Saint Laurent]
Liberal Party, Canadian;convention of 1948
[g]North America;Nov. 15, 1948: St. Laurent Becomes Canadian Prime Minister[02680]
[g]Canada;Nov. 15, 1948: St. Laurent Becomes Canadian Prime Minister[02680]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 15, 1948: St. Laurent Becomes Canadian Prime Minister[02680]
St. Laurent, Louis
King, William Lyon Mackenzie
Gardiner, James Garfield
Power, Charles Gavan
Howe, Clarence Decatur

Canadian prime minister Louis St. Laurent.

(National Archives)

Perhaps the most important part of his long career was his leadership of Canada during World War II and in the years immediately following. Having served as leader of the opposition during the worst of the Great Depression, King was again elected prime minister in 1935. As prime minister, he oversaw Canada’s massive contribution to the war, overcoming Canadians’ mixed feelings about the war and crises over conscription. At the close of the war, the continued popularity of the Liberals assured King’s victory in the election of 1945. The government’s plans for social welfare programs that raised the standard of living for all Canadians became part of King’s legacy. Although he was, perhaps, more respected than beloved, his leadership during the war guaranteed that his departure from politics would be a turning point for Canada.

In January, 1948, worn out by the stress of wartime leadership and now in his seventies, King announced his retirement. A Liberal Party convention, the first since 1919, was called for August to choose his successor. The most likely of the candidates was Louis St. Laurent, an intelligent and successful corporate lawyer, fluent in French and English. St. Laurent, then sixty-six years of age, was a relative newcomer to federal politics, having been elected to Parliament for Quebec East in 1942. Since that time, he had served as minister of justice and minister of external affairs, and he had been asked by King to consider himself as the next leader of the Liberal Party. For King, the similarities between St. Laurent and the late Laurier represented a chance to repair the rift between French Canadians Canada;French Canadian dissent and the Liberal Party, caused primarily by the issue of conscription. The other candidates were James Garfield Gardiner, minister of agriculture, and Charles Gavan Power, who had been elected to Parliament for Quebec South and served in the senate. Of these two, only Gardiner was a serious contender.

On August 5, the national Liberal Convention opened at the Ottawa Coliseum. In the course of the convention, three events took place: King took formal leave of his party, a new platform was debated and resolved, and voting for a new leader was carried out. St. Laurent eventually was elected to lead the party, with 848 votes; Gardiner and Power received 323 and 56 votes, respectively. On Monday, November 15, St. Laurent took the oath of office as prime minister.

The following year, a federal election Parliamentary elections, Canadian;1949 confirmed the popularity of St. Laurent and his Liberal government. The Liberals won 50 percent of the vote, taking 193 seats in Parliament. The major opposition came from the Progressive Conservative Party Progressive Conservative Party, Canadian , led by George Drew Drew, George , which won forty-one seats in Parliament. Running a close third came the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, Canadian which won thirteen seats. Liberal victory was, in part, the result of a healthy economy and a fiscal surplus that allowed a reduction in income tax and a continuation of Liberal plans for social services.

One of the most important developments of St. Laurent’s term took place on April 1, 1949, when Newfoundland joined the Canadian Confederation, completing the modern confederation of provinces that compose Canada. Current provinces, dates of admission to the confederation, territories, and capital cities appear above.

One of the most important developments of St. Laurent’s term took place on April 1, 1949, when Newfoundland joined the Canadian Confederation. Newfoundland had long declined to join in the union of the provinces begun more than eighty years earlier, but postwar prosperity gave Newfoundland confidence that it could join Canada while maintaining its distinct identity. In July, 1948, a referendum was held approving union with Canada, and the terms of union were worked out in the first weeks of St. Laurent’s term in office.


St. Laurent would serve as prime minister for nine years, until the first Liberal defeat in five federal elections. In this time, St. Laurent’s stewardship of the nation saw several key developments in Canada. First, Canada began to find its place in world affairs, both in direct relations with the great powers and in international cooperation through the United Nations. Canada also redefined its relationship with its great allies, the United States and the United Kingdom, strengthening its economic and political ties to the former and lessening its dependence on the latter.

In this period, Canada was increasingly urban, wealthy, and nationalist, working to define its own cultural and political identity. The Royal Commission Report on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences (1951)—known as the Massey Report Massey Report (1951) after its chairman, Vincent Massey Massey, Vincent —investigated the state of Canadian culture. The report concluded that Canada had been too much shaped by outside influences, and that government should take steps to encourage a unique Canadian culture. Manufacturing converted from wartime to peacetime production without losing its pace, and Canadian goods and natural resources found ready markets at home and around the globe.

The postwar boom in Canada was the source of the continued success of the Liberals under the leadership of St. Laurent. Following the landslide victory of 1949, the Liberals were confirmed by a slightly less vigorous victory in the election of 1953. Parliamentary elections, Canadian;1953 Their victory was a measure of the comparative weakness of the opposition and the popularity of the latest round of social welfare works, including the old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, and family allowances.

The power of the Liberal government weakened in the mid-1950’s, when a combination of forces made change seem appropriate. First, there was a growing sense that the Liberals had been in power for too many years, and that their long years in power had made them complacent and out of touch. Second, a controversy over the funding for the Trans-Canada Pipeline and the manner in which debate on the issue was shut down in Parliament brought loud and vigorous criticism of the government. Finally, regional dissatisfaction, particularly in the Western and Atlantic provinces, convinced many that the government did not care about regional interests.

In the election of June, 1957, a revitalized Progressive Conservative Party under the leadership of John G. Diefenbaker Diefenbaker, John G. defeated St. Laurent’s Liberal Party, taking 112 seats to the Liberals’ 105. The election marked the beginning of a change in the Liberal Party, which increasingly seemed to rely on support from Ontario and Quebec and was seldom able to win seats in the West. A national Liberal Convention was held in January, 1958, and St. Laurent was replaced by Lester B. Pearson as head of the Liberal Party and leader of the opposition. Pearson, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 and former president of the United Nations, became prime minister in April, 1963. Prime ministry, Canadian;Louis St. Laurent[Saint Laurent]
Liberal Party, Canadian;convention of 1948

Further Reading

  • Bothwell, Robert, Ian Drummond, and John English. Canada Since 1945: Power, Politics, and Provincialism. Rev. ed. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1989. Presents a comprehensive look at postwar Canada. One chapter covers the beginnings of St. Laurent’s leadership.
  • Bothwell, Robert, and William Kilbourn. C. D. Howe: A Biography. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland and Stewart, 1979. An engaging biography of the person who was a major power in the Liberal Party.
  • Feigert, Frank. Canada Votes, 1935-1988. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1989. Offers both a statistical breakdown and an analysis of federal elections in Canada.
  • Pickersgill, J. W. My Years with Louis St. Laurent: A Political Memoir. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1975. Provides an insider’s look at the transfer of power from King to St. Laurent.
  • Pickersgill, J. W., and D. F. Forster. 1947-1948. Vol. 4 in The Mackenzie King Record. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1970. Drawing from King’s speeches and personal memoranda, this work gives insight into the last part of King’s political career.
  • Samuels, H. Raymond, II, ed. Prime Ministers of Canada: Selected Speeches, 1867-2002. Ottawa, Ont.: Agora Cosmopolitan, 2002. Profiles of and speeches by the prime ministers of Canada. Includes a bibliography with editorial commentary.
  • Thomson, Dale C. Louis St. Laurent: Canadian. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968. A general, rather than scholarly, study of the political career of St. Laurent.

Canada’s Citizenship Act Is Passed

Newfoundland Becomes Canada’s Tenth Province

Massey Becomes Canada’s First Native-Born Governor-General

Diefenbaker Serves as Canadian Prime Minister

Pearson Becomes Canada’s Prime Minister

Trudeau Serves as Canadian Prime Minister